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To provide a little respite from the typically grim stuff we cover in Hell World I've started a series where I ask writer and musician friends and colleagues to pick their top 5 songs by a band and write a few words about what they mean to them. Today we're going to read a lot (a lot) about the much beloved and dearly missed singer songwriter Elliott Smith. Previously we covered two of my other favorites R.E.M. and Weezer. Yes I am extremely in my forties. Thank you so much to everyone whose contributed to this series. I am lucky to know so many talented people.
Real quick before we get to that though and because it's thematically resonant here there was a viral tweet going around yesterday asking "how does anyone make peace with the fact that one day you’re just gonna not exist anymore without like being delusionally religious?" As you might not be surprised to hear there are a lot of stories about that very thing in my recent book A Creature Wanting Form. One goes in part like this:
Please do check out the book. I promise it's the best thing I've ever written.
Ok now that I'm done cramming in some last minute research on Genius for insight into the meaning behind Elliott's lyrics let's get going.
I hit my bottom in Los Angeles. It wasn’t like someone jumped out of a window and fell for a few seconds before hitting the pavement. That’s dramatic and cool and gross and notable. My bottom was a pathetic repetition. Imagine a rubber ball being thrown against plywood, over and over, the reply weaker every time. That was me and the bars on Sunset, bouncing and bouncing and bouncing until I walked into a meeting at Cafe Tropical on October 20 of 2015.
I would log my hours in the Vantablack of Gold Room or sit at The Short Stop and bother Justine the bartender or go to Little Joy and ask them to play the Prince album in the stack behind the bar. (For You.) I’d stumble out full of cheap tequila and budget beer and if I had any money left I’d get a burrito from the truck outside The Short Stop.
When I got home, I’d usually listen to Elliott Smith. There is nothing an alcoholic likes more than feeling sorry for himself. It is our curling, our shot put, our sport that nobody understands. They don’t see all of our gold medals! Smith seemed like the guy for the mission, an alcoholic in LA writing about being an alcoholic in LA.
And yet Elliott doesn’t feel sorry for himself. His songs are as free of cliché as a conversational writer can get: you recognize and understand every idea but they don’t arrive in the language you know. His songs are devastating without being sentimental, which is odd, because your shirt will be wet after looping a song five times and whose fault is that?
That deceptively wild guitar work. If you think these chords are simple, try playing Angeles. His finger-picking reminds me of Lindsey Buckingham, who gets equally deep and hard to duplicate. If you think you know a songwriter with better words, they don’t have Elliott’s melodies. If you think you know someone with better melodies, they don’t have Elliott’s words. It’s perfect for an alcoholic! When we realize whoa this guy is amazing hahaha we are justified it’s ok to be drunk you can be Elliott if you’re lucky and we black out again.
My dad sang Oh My Darling Clementine to me when I was very little. He had a nylon string acoustic guitar and it became my first instrument.
There are not many first verses like this one:
They’re waking you up to close the bar
The street’s wet, you can tell by the sound of the cars
The bartender’s singing Clementine
While he’s turning around the open sign
Bitch you just got a whole movie for free! “You can tell by the sound of the cars”??? The displacement? The meter? The fucking gall of this guy. And then the verse that kept me drinking for years:
Drank yourself into slow-mo
Made an angel in the snow
Anything to pass the time
And keep that song out of your mind
Hey, it can’t be bad if Elliott can write this.
I was being ripped off in LA listening to Elliott talk about being ripped off in LA. People say this is about the music business but this is about every fraud in that town (and every third person there is a fraud). “What’s a game of chance to you is a game of real skill to him.”
3. Between the Bars
Here it is, the big one. Elliott lulled us into thinking that being an alcoholic was cool. Problem is, as we say, he was telling on himself. The booze itself sings to you, promising to silence every resentment that you deepen as you drink. Man, other people, they’re the worst! Not us, though.
The people you've been before that you
Don't want around anymore
That push and shove and won't bend to your will
I'll keep them still
4. Waltz #2 (XO)
This one is just here for pure songwriting. “She appears composed, so she is, I suppose.” Who let this dude write like this? Also has a song this good ever had drumming this bad? It’s like Paul McCartney if he wasn’t an emotional coward.
5. St. Ides Heaven
“The moon is a light bulb breaking.”
Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician from New York. Semiotext)e) is publishing his memoir, Earlier, on October 11 and his newsletter is entering its twenty-first year of operation. Read his work here; look up Body Meπa and Ui and Calvinist on your platform of choice.
I'm sure I picked some of this older stuff just because it was more formative for me, because I also wore out Figure 8, but these are some of the songs that had the most impact on me or that I go back to.
1. Waltz #2 (XO)
This is one of those perfect sounding recordings, one where I listen every time I am writing a new album because the arrangements are so spare and genius, and then these incredible layers emerge for brief but fascinating moments. I always want to draw some more magic out of this perfect gem and attempt to find some new life or way to recapture the sensibility they used to produce this song. Amazing, gruff lyrics, spat through a sneer of hurt and disappointment.
The acoustic guitar root notes are hypnotic and engage you throughout the early part of the song and then I love the low key explosion into the piano solo on this one.
3. Independence Day
The shuffle is really entrancing and the lyrics really shine on this. It's higher energy than some of his songs but it's still got that brooding quality that I love in his work, like there's something simmering under the surface.
4. Rose Parade
This has such a slow marching energy to it, like a depressed parade. Low and dark but with a glimmer of beauty.
5. Alphabet Town
Ominous and wonderful, mysterious and weird. Thanks Elliott
Adam Turla plays in the band Murder By Death.
5. Junk Bond Trader
4. Let’s Get Lost
3. Waltz #2 (XO)
2. Sweet Adeline
1. Cupid’s Trick
I have snatches of memories of Elliott Smith. The first time I was snuck into Lounge Ax, he was low enough on the bill to not even be mentioned in the Reader preview of the show; when I was hustled through the doors by the woman I’d been interviewing at the Kinko’s across the street, he was onstage, intense and quiet and compelling. The night he performed at the Oscars I was at a party with my friends, marveling as he stood in between Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion; I wouldn’t learn about Celine’s kindnesses toward him until later. I loved his music for its tenderness and openness; even though it was rarely what some writers in search of adjectives might call “expansive,” it was big enough that I could crawl inside it whenever I needed to do so.
Which is why it kind of sucks that I remember most vividly is his death, or at least the way I found out about it. I was working a World Series game—editing copy, resizing photos, trying to stave off my antipathy toward the Yankees in order to be professional—and during an early-game lull, a message board I browsed had a new thread: “RIP Elliott Smith.” What? The thread loped along for the next couple of hours with people hunting down information, or even an in-the-know person who could reassure us that whoever made the original post had been grossly misinformed. We started refreshing Google for news—it was before video, before larger news sites became comfortable with constantly updating, and only a few months after MySpace had launched, so you didn’t have the real-time mainlining of insignificant details as SEO ploys that you might now.
The game ended and my shift slowed; I found a fan site that all but confirmed everyone’s worst fear, and posted a link, and that was that. The grimness of that night was crushing, and I still, two decades later, recall the heaviness I felt when I hear vague rumblings of something bad online, which if they’re upsetting enough will make me embark on a quest to quell my dread with new information so I can maybe, possibly get back to whatever task I was ignoring.
Maura Johnston is a writer, editor, professor, and DJ who lives in Boston.
Doing a Top 5 songs list involving Elliott Smith is a near-impossible task. There are too many variables: What stage of my life are we talking about? What mood am I currently in? Am I driving somewhere, walking, or on a train? (Something about Elliott Smith’s songs go really well with transportation, IDK.) After I submit this crop, I’ll probably change my mind and wish I’d blurbed another few songs. This is all to say, Elliott Smith’s music has soundtracked most of my life, starting at around age 17. It is classic, gripping, delicate, empathetic, defeated, hopeful, expansive, and ghostly. The range Smith was capable of capturing likely reflects just how much he felt on a daily basis – all of that feeling needs a place to go, otherwise it’ll pull you under.
Smith’s lyrics are not always clear, and a lot of his songs are still debated 20+ years after he wrote them. But that allows us to attach ourselves to them and let them live within us. Below, I’ve done my best to select the ones that are always with me.
5. Bled White
“‘Cause happy and sad come in quick succession.” I love that line. I couldn’t have told you what Bled White was about when I first heard it – now, I can see that it’s primarily concerned with self-medicating and living as a “functional addict” — but teenage me felt drawn to Smith’s melancholy lyrics overlaid by jangling guitars and upbeat percussion. That type of juxtaposition in any song — Smith or not Smith — gets me every time.
4. A Fond Farewell
The sixth song on Smith's 2004 posthumous album From a Basement on the Hill, this strummed minor-key melody appears to grapple with getting clean from addiction. In 2003, the year of his death at 34, Smith had been abstaining from illegal drugs and alcohol, and the bittersweet but resolute A Fond Farewell paints an unsettling portrait of someone sweating out a disease and making peace with the outcome (“I can deal with some psychic pain if it'll slow down my higher brain”). In the long-tail aftermath of Smith’s demise though, A Fond Farewell sounds more literal, as if the singer really is fading into the black.
3. Angel In The Snow
The acoustic harmonies on Angel In The Snow are so intricate and crisp. Though it’s largely understood to be about cocaine, which makes sense, I do like the way Angel In The Snow has been reinterpreted on occasion, particularly in Jason Reitman’s 2009 movie Up In The Air. Being a sucker for a good song-to-screen sync, Angel In The Snow plays as the emotionally avoidant Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) breaks into his old Wisconsin high school with Vera Farmiga’s Alex Goranl. As Ryan reconnects with his childhood self and grows closer to Alex, the viewer senses that this is a breakthrough moment (no pun intended) for both — but for some unknown reason, this relationship won’t work out. "Better stop before it goes too far," Smith warns before giving in: “Don't you know that I love you?”
2. Independence Day
Independence Day holds a special resonance for me. For four years in college, I had a radio show, and I called that show Independence Day after Smith’s sixth XO track. I played it at the start of every weekly program. It just seemed to make sense: “Independence” could point to the type of music you’d hear on my show (mostly new, *indie* selections from the new-release CD shelf), a state of mind, or even college itself, which feels really major and important in the moment but is ultimately a blip compared to what comes after: “Everybody knows you only live a day. But it's brilliant anyway.”
1. Waltz #2 (XO)
“Never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.” The entirety of the slow-marching Waltz #2 (XO) is so aching, so poignant, so utterly beautiful, both in sentiment and composition. I loved Waltz #2 (XO) at 17, and I love it almost two decades later. I love it because it grows with you. Now, it’s time for a dumb, mushy story. My first day on Tinder – yes, Tinder – I matched with this guy who had long, blonde hair, green eyes, and a dreamy expression. By “dreamy,” I mean that he had a gaze that was both sweet and slightly sad — as if he saw more than the average person. His Tinder bio included Waltz #2 (XO)as his favorite song. I thought, “If that guy ends up being as lovely in person as he looks in a photo, then we are probably soulmates.” Well, he was. Reader, I married him.
Rachel Brodsky is a music and culture writer (and podcaster) living in Los Angeles -- or just "Angeles," if you like.
5. Miss Misery
I could pretend that I knew about Elliott Smith before Good Will Hunting came out in 1997, but I'd be fucking lying if I did. Miss Misery—one of six Elliott Smith songs (one was orchestral) used by director Gus Van Sant in the film—plays over the credits at the end of the movie, right after Robin Williams' famously ad-libbed closer, "Son of a bitch, he stole my line."
My buddy Liam and I rented the movie so much that his ma eventually asked the video store clerk what the charge would be if she "lost" the VHS tape—as opposed to renting it time and time again. Whether she went that route, or simply bought it out right, I can't remember. All I know is that we would stay up night after night, drinking shoplifted beers or whatever liquor we could sip off his ma's stash without her noticing, watching Good Will Hunting on repeat. We were two 14-year-old fuck-ups living in Massachusetts, and rumor was the two guys who wrote the movie were from Boston. Did that mean my alcohol-addled adolescent brain also assumed Elliott Smith was from Boston, where I'd spent most of my childhood? You better believe it, and nobody would correct me for years. (Worth noting that I never made that assumption when it came to Gus Van Sant, who I figured was from somewhere fancy in Europe.)
The opening lyrics of Miss Misery, a song that was written specifically for Good Will Hunting, are actually muted as Robin Williams says the final line of the film, kicking in on "With two tickets torn in half, and a lot of nothing to do." But it's the opening poetry of that number—when I finally heard the song in full—that made me fall in love with the music of Elliott Smith.
I'll fake it through the day,
With some help from Johnnie Walker Red,
Send the poison rain down the drain,
To put bad thoughts in my head.
I was a young, angry, confused kid from a violent household who was two years deep into figuring out that drinking made my brain itch less. Here was an anthem filled with longing that I didn't fully understand, but one that I felt. Deeply.
Despite having a palate more suited to Mike's Hard Lemonade at the time, I began stealing Johnnie Walker Red whenever I got the chance.
4. Christian Brothers
Music has never been one of my strengths. I didn't grow up with albums, or favorite bands—more a mishmash of favorite songs that were played on my local rock radio station (WAAF 107.3, which now plays "Christian contemporary"). Or, later on, whatever Liam and I could download off Napster or Limewire thanks to his dial-up connected computer. I couldn't play an instrument, and I still don't know how to. I can't read music. I don't understand notes, chords, melody, nor harmony. Rhythm and tempo I can at least feel, but don't expect me to know the difference between two/four beats or four/four beats. Now, I do know to clap on two and four—not one and three—but only because a desperately embarrassed friend at a show once refused to let me buy another beer until I figured out the difference. "This is for your own good," he said, as my hands slapped together yet again at the wrong time.
No, music has always been something I could appreciate, but never fully comprehend. Never fully know. But lyrics? Lyrics are my heart.
By now Liam and I had discovered that we didn't have to fast forward to different parts of Good Will Hunting to hear these songs that we loved so much. There were multiple albums of Elliott Smith music already out there in the world, waiting for us to shoplift them, or record them off a friend who had the CD using a blank tape, or to try and figure out how to download them off the aforementioned internet.
We weren't the only ones falling in love with Smith, either. He'd performed Miss Misery at the 1998 Oscars, dressed in a white suit that contrasted against his black shirt and even blacker hair. The sad tune had been nominated for Best Original Song. It lost to Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On.
Yet, there is joy in discovering a musician at the same time as mainstream America does. To showing up late to the party. Sure, you weren't there from the beginning. You don't know all the lore. Hell, you still might think the dude grew up in Boston. But lucky for you, there is a backlog of music, just waiting for you to listen to it. And listen we did.
Elliott Smith's music was no longer the soundtrack to a movie we liked, it was now the soundtrack to our lives.
An overwhelming number of my childhood memories are wrapped up in Elliott Smith's lyrics, but I have a sharp, early memory of hearing Christian Brothers for the first time and feeling something close to truth. Like Miss Misery, it was the opening lines that grabbed me: "No bad dream fucker's gonna boss me around."
I'd already been working. I knew what it was to hate a boss. On top of that, I was a teenager. Every adult seemed like a boss. Especially parents. Bad dream fuckers who wanted to control you. Tell you what to do. I admired the way Elliott Smith spit the word fucker. I felt that anger, too. But I also felt something else.
I wanted to be a Good dream fucker. I wanted to hope for something better.
Years later, but not so many that I wasn't still a teenager, I spent my summers working at a hotel ten miles off the coast of New Hampshire. I'd listen to Elliott Smith—thanks to an old iPod some friends gifted me—while sitting on the rocks between shifts at work, waves crashing below me as I watched the sun set behind the coastline and drank.
By now I'd learned more about Elliott Smith the person. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska—not Boston, much to my dismay—and was raised in Texas, before moving to Portland, Oregon at the same age I was when I first discovered his music. When you're young, you simply love the art. As you get older, you become more and more interested in the person who made it.
In town on the mainland, there was a woman who ran a used vintage store filled with eclectic clothing and perfectly curated styles—especially if you were a young person trying to let the rest of New England know that you've got dreams of something bigger. The woman's name was Amity, and she was bright-eyed and beautiful, with a laugh that seemed to fill my entire body with honey when I heard it.
There was a rumor about Amity, that she'd once dated Elliott Smith, or at least had been friends with him.
Amity, Amity, Amity, Amity
Amity, Amity, Amity
Caught stars in her arms
Hello, hello kitty happy in New York City
Amity walking like a lucky charm
I now know that to define somebody through the lens of one of their exes is ridiculously naive at best, and carelessly hurtful at worst. But at the time I was 18, and I'd never met anyone who knew someone famous. Who had a song written about them—a song that so perfectly matched the person whose shop I would visit any chance I got. I remember putting in my wired earbuds as I climbed up the hill from the docks to her small, comforting shop. Listening to Amity—such a short song—on repeat. Some of my favorite Elliott Smith lyrics, so gorgeously simple, playing in my ears:
"I'm a neon sign and I stay open all the time."
I never asked Amity about knowing Elliott Smith, not once. Simply went to her store and spent money I didn't really have on shirts that made me look much cooler than I actually was, and was grateful to be in her presence. The store closed down a few years later, and I never saw Amity again, but I think of her every time I listen to Amity, which is to say that I think of her often.
2. Kings Crossing
I'm 20 years old when Elliott Smith dies. My college roommate and I—who had lived together for too long at this point, our friendship fraying—came together to mourn, drinking Johnnie Walker Red and listening to albums on his superb stereo system.
A year later, From a Basement on the Hill is posthumously released. My roommate is surprised to learn that I didn’t even know there was a new album coming out. But again, we gather to drink and listen and mourn. Kings Crossing’s ghostly lyrics seemingly instantly prophetic, as so much writing by those who grapple with living does after they pass.
"I can't prepare for death anymore than I already have."
Sober or not. Suicide or not. I'm not here to argue that. The man struggled with addiction. Struggled with himself. But, to put it more simply, the man struggled. Who among us doesn't? What is life if not a struggle that lasts however long we've got?
1. Between the Bars
What can I write about a perfect song? Lyrics that are so simple, so easy to understand, yet so multifaceted at the same time. Is it a song about two lovers walking between bars, one trying to comfort the other—perhaps trying to talk ‘em into getting one last drink before the night is finished? Or is it a song sung from the point of view of alcohol to Smith himself?
“Drink up, baby, stay up all night, with the things you could do, you won't but you might.”
Are the "bars" actual drinking establishments? Or are they bars of music? Or the bars of a bleak prison of addiction?
Better music writers and more insightful critics than me can figure all that out. I just know how the song makes me feel.
Art is capable of so many numerous things, but my very favorite thing is also one of its most basic functions: to make us feel less alone in a lonely world. Smith's songs do that for me. For Liam. For my roommate. For so many others. The mystery of it all is part of its appeal. I won’t claim to know what every lyric means, or what Elliott Smith himself—a man I never met, nor knew—was feeling throughout his life. All I know is that I feel less alone when I listen to his music—now played through wireless earbuds off my internet-connected phone that I carry in my pocket—as I go out walking, heading from bar to bar to bar.
15. Bled White
14. Pictures of Me
13. Easy Way Out
12. Roman Candle
10. I Figured You Out
9. Last Call
8. Rose Parade
7. Needle in the Hay
5. Miss Misery
2. Coming Up Roses
1. Ballad of Big Nothing
The night he died we went to see The Decemberists at the Middle East Upstairs – which is wild enough on its own to think of them playing there – and they played Clementine. It was of course devastating.
34 years old. That seemed old to me at the time. I didn’t know anything. Not one single thing.
As has apparently become standard procedure in this series I am granting myself a longer list than everyone else. I’m drunk on power. Also drunk on alcohol. I’m a little embarrassed to admit I drink Johnnie Walker Black not Red.
I’ve done a lot of writing about Elliott Smith here in the Hell World newsletter and in my books over the years and I grew up in a family where it was anathema to ever leave anything on your plate and also in an addict environment where you have to finish the bag so I hope you don’t mind if I remix some of it here now. Many of you will be reading this newsletter for the first time.
Before I get to that though I just want to encourage everyone to listen to the Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith covers album. Despite Elliott Smith being a big part of my life from the time Either/Or came out when I was a dumb shit pretentious college emo cry baby I was perhaps understandably not ready to listen to From a Basement on the Hill or anything that came out posthumously so shortly after he died and so I put it off for years. It was that covers album that made me understand how perfect – not just as a song but as an Elliott Smith song – Twilight was though. It eventually became one of my favorites.
“I’m already somebody’s baby.”
The tension of that.
A little more preamble real quick. A couple of years ago I tweeted a video of the famous Oscars performance:
“Still can’t watch this without crying. I remember gathering around the shitty tv like our team just won the super bowl and all the championships at once. Even now I can’t help but think about how nervous/ elated he must’ve been.”
I just watched it right now thinking surely I won’t weep once again and yet here we are.
Then I showed it to M. because she asked me what I was crying about and I cried again but less so.
And then I read what he had to say about it.
"I had fully armored myself against having to be crushed by the presence of Celine Dion,” he said.
“But she was the nicest person I’ve met in a while. Afterward I’d get these indie-rock kids saying, ‘I can’t believe you had to hold Celine Dion’s hand.’ I said, ‘I liked holding her hand because she’s a nice person. In fact, right now you’re being much more narrow-minded and shallow than she is. You’re in a very backward position here, You should rethink it."
I used to get the guitar out a lot and hack my way through a few Elliott songs. Playing like I was holding a chicken wing in my fretting hand. They’re not very easy as you may have heard. Chords that seem made up when you read their names. Like when you’re young and you first try to learn your favorite Beatles songs and you pretty quickly go ah well I guess I’m never going to play that one. Harder than that though.
One of the only ones I ever really figured out was the somewhat appropriately titled I Figured You Out. M. and I used to sing that one together a lot. Her voice is very pretty. Almost no one knows that about her but me. But we don’t really sing that much anymore and I haven’t gotten the guitar out in years. Maybe I’ll do it now. Maybe I’ll start doing that again.
I’m definitely going to. Tomorrow.
I’ve made an asshole of myself in front of beloved bands too many times to count over the past twenty years or so but one I often think about was in like 1998 or 1999 or whenever it was he was touring with Quasi as his band when I saw Elliott Smith standing by the bar at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. I was wearing a yellow knit cap in the California heat just like he did all the time because young people don’t know what they’re doing. The world is like a dressing room and you’re trying things on constantly going does this work how do I look in this until you settle on something that does not.
He was standing alone and I went up to him nervously and explained how great I thought he was and the entire exchange seemed to really bum him out.
I suppose in retrospect things that bum out Elliott Smith isn’t exactly a high bar to cross.
The first time I ever saw him play was a year or so before that at Lupos in Providence. We drove down there from Worcester and he played Ballad of Big Nothing and I cried standing right there in the middle of the crowd. It had never occurred to me before that point in my life that crying at a concert was something that could happen. Then we went and got a falafel over at that place on Thayer St. and it was a really good falafel I remember that.
That one song he sang that made me learn how to cry goes like this and it probably doesn’t seem like much out of context but it goes like this: “Now you can do what you want to whenever you want to, do what you want to whenever you want to, do what you want to whenever you want to, no it doesn't mean a thing. Big nothing.”
I listened to it just now and it didn’t make me cry. After a while the things that make you cry stop working. It’s like how your tolerance levels go up like after you drink too much or do too much of a certain type of drug and it takes more to get the job done. To hit your number. To get there.
But every now and again even if you drink a lot regularly you can have one beer and you’ll be like wtf because it knocks you back a little and the same thing happens to the things that used to make you cry but don’t anymore. They can sneak up on you.
The wind can blow a certain way that you aren’t expecting and then you’re fucked all over again.
Elliott Smith was a big fan of the Beatles and he covered their song Because for the soundtrack of the movie American Beauty which came out the same year I was wearing the dumb hat in Los Angeles and looking back on it a movie where Kevin Spacey is a sex pest to teenagers seems a bit too on the nose.
Sometimes when we see a bag blowing in the wind M. and I will go “that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen” like the kid says in the movie and it’s a joke because it’s usually not all that beautiful but occasionally it is.
Occasionally things are in fact that beautiful.
The harmonies Elliott does on that Beatles cover are pretty amazing but after I hear it I usually just want to go listen to his song Happiness which goes like this: “What I used to be will pass away and then you'll see, that all I want now is happiness for you and me.”
Another song of his that is good is Rose Parade and there’s a line that goes: “The trumpet has obviously been drinking, cause he’s fucking up even the simplest lines. You say it's a sight that's quite worth seeing, it's just that everyone's interest is stronger than mine. When they clean the street I'll be the only shit that's left behind” and it made me think about how toward the end Elliott was often too out of it to play the songs right anymore but people would still go and look at him fuck up like it was a spectacle.
Yell requests at him.
Sometimes when I listen to those live bootlegs of people goofing and shouting at him I want to invent a time machine and go punch them in the mouth.
Maybe in my yellow hat.
I went with my friend who I am very proud of for being sober for almost a year now to a show the other night and he said he bumped into another old friend of ours outside who told him about how he had been sober for a long time now and then the first friend told me he didn’t mention that he had also gotten sober to the guy and I thought that was weird because if I was sober it would probably be the only thing I could talk about.
As opposed to how much I drink which is one of the only things I talk about now.
Sometimes I go back and look at shitty quality videos of the time Elliott Smith played on the Oscars just to convince myself that it actually happened and as far as I can tell it did.
“I'll fake it through the day with some help from Johnnie Walker Red,” he sings in that one. “Send the poison rain down the drain to put bad thoughts in my head.”
A friend just messaged me to say they were reading my book and that it was really good and a lot of people have been saying that to me but I don’t know if I trust it. Thank you that is nice to hear I said which is what I often say because it does actually mean a lot to hear and then they said I hope all the praise you’re getting can lead to better mental health and I replied haha because I thought it was a joke then I thought about it and said wait is that something that can really happen?
Sometimes I do wonder if eventually there’s going to be a threshold I might potentially pass of people telling me I’m good online where I’ll finally be happy but I don’t think that’s a real thing at least based on my reading of the general mental health of various people ten million times more beloved and talented than I could ever be such as Elliott Smith.
Luke O'Neil runs this newsletter you are reading and he will never shut the fuck up about his new book.
My band Cheekface has made all of our albums in Elliott's personal studio New Monkey in LA. (Go record there, it's great.) Almost every one of our songs has been recorded through his Trident mixing console. His music has been with me for more than half my life. So tough task to pick 5, but here's what I got.
5. Junk Bond Trader
There's a line in Junk Bond Trader, "A stick man flashing a fine-lined smile, junk bond trader trying to sell a sucker a stock, rich man in a poor man's clothes." But Elliott sings the word "stock" so lightly that it also sounds like "style," which rhymes with smile, and ties to the next line about clothes. That is the hand of a master at work, a Mona Lisa smile.
4. Everything Reminds Me of Her
This is the song that got me into Elliott when I was in high school. To my 14 year old boy brain, it seemed very relatable: "I gotta hear the same sermon all the time now from you people." It's a punk lyric, but out of the punk sonic context. It also made a ton of sense to me as a guitar nerd who primarily listened to Metallica, because the guitar work on this song is so nasty. I learned every lick and recorded my own versions. I still play the little fills during every soundcheck. This is one of his plainest melodies, and a relatively straightforward lyric, but it exposes Elliott's latent metalhead tendencies and brought me into his universe.
3. Strung Out Again
This song is so raw and sounds sonically like it is from the depths of self-destruction. Yet the words are laid out just so, with perfect control. "Was a parliament of owls flying over a city of canals, floating on the body floating in the Dalles." Sheesh. And at the same time, the verse chord changes are a marvel. A major to A diminished to C major. It doesn't make that much sense, but it happens before you can process it. Then to D minor, which doesn't square with A major either, although a minor iv chord isn't the craziest thing in a folk song. But that D minor deviously sets up a Bb major that comes right after because of the D and F notes in the chord, and even though it makes absolutely no sense in A major, you get there without even noticing as a listener. So how does he resolve it back to A? He drops the Bb major chord down an augmented 4th to E7 directly after, which should sound insane, but since Bb major and E7 share the concert D, it flows right back to A.
2. Ballad of Big Nothing
"You're sitting around at home waiting for your brother to call. I saw him down in the alley, having had enough of it all." Who has not been on one end or the other of this experience (or both)? This line describes the situation with such a plain brutality. And yet the care in its assembly? "Having had?" Those words only land next to each other in a song by a surgeon's touch.
1. Pretty Mary Kay
Elliott is maybe my favorite songwriter ever and one of my favorite parts of his arsenal is his chords. There are so many of them in Pretty Mary Kay happening so fast, and when you see them written out, it's like alphabet soup. It should clatter like a trainwreck. And yet you hear the song and it sounds so natural, like it was written 500 years ago and it's always been there.
Greg Katz plays in the band Cheekface.
5. Needle In The Hay
If (when) an alien asks about Elliott Smith, is this the song you play for them? I think so. The quietest, saddest rager of a rock song.
4. Son of Sam
If you messed up and didn't play Needle In The Hay for the aliens, you can redeem yourself with this one. It's a polished pop/rock song, but it ENDS WITH A BRIDGE. This is one of the many reasons I admire him so much as a songwriter - the song structure doesn't set the parameters. Instead, he writes the structure around the story he wants to tell, and you're just along for the ride without realizing he threw away the rulebook.
3. Memory Lane
I realize I’m about to say something that probably will make some people lose respect for me, but this Elliott Smith song is actually what got me into the Beatles. I grew up in a household full of music, but my parents were more on a prog-rock tear in my early years, so there were specific bands that were intentionally (or unintentionally) omitted from my childhood listening, the Beatles being one of them. Hearing this song for the first time made me realize two things: one, I need to learn how to finger-pick because it’s so fucking cool. And two, I’m angry at my parents because I never realized how cool the Beatles were, but Elliott Smith showed me, and that's pretty rad.
2. Miss Misery (Early Version)
I love it when I have the opportunity to listen to early versions of songs, especially ones that have gone on to become well-known songs of the artist/band, or just ones that really resonated with me. The final version of this song is beautiful, don't get me wrong, but there's something that is even more heart-wrenching about this version. On top of that, in my opinion, this version contains some of his best lyrics that somehow ended up being omitted entirely:
Next door the TV's flashing blue frames on the wall
It's a comedy from the seventies with a lead no one recalls
He vanished into oblivion
It's easy to do
And I cried a sea when you talked to me
The day you said we were through
1. Waltz #2 (XO)
A perfect song is a perfect song. Waltz #2 (XO), at least to me, showcases the genius of Smith as a songwriter, lyricist, musician, composer, and arranger, and I don't think it gets any better than that.
Kayleigh Goldsworthy is a musician, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist.
1. Say Yes
“Elliott Smith made sad music,” is a statement that is both insultingly reductive and completely true. No matter your feelings on the guy it’s really hard to front; dude was sad. And not “prozac and talk therapy sad” but like deeply, devastatingly broken. Yet, somehow, amongst the beautiful gloom of his catalog, we got Say Yes, one of the most pragmatically happy songs ever made. Say Yes is a song about lying in that crystal, extremely fragile moment between suspecting something wonderful and finding out if it’s true. A song that stretches the space between eye contact and a kiss to two minutes and nineteen seconds. It climaxes with what is, to me, the crown jewel in an achingly brief but brilliant songwriting career full of them. The song slides into the bridge and a song that had been tranquil becomes anxious (“Crooked spin can’t come to rest…”) rising and falling until it tiptoes out upon a high wire (“See how it…”) injecting the last word with a wobble of uncertainty (“i-i-i-i-i-s”) before descending to the ground with the delicate grace of a leaf on a breeze (“They want you or they don’t…”) then a pause, before delivering the denouement – in a slight raise that sounds like uncertainty’s blissful resolve – (“Say yes”), evaporating the previous line’s second half until only “they want you” remains. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, the kind of evocatively small sentiment blown up into massive resonance that Elliott was so singularly good at capturing. More often that sentiment was depression, this time it was happiness. I wish it could have been happiness more often for Elliott but I’m thankful every day he got the chance to render it as perfectly as he does on Say Yes.
2. Waltz #2 (XO)
For a hot second there, right at the end of the 90s, Elliott Smith was almost a superstar. His performance of Miss Misery in a white suit at the Oscars stole the show, Madonna was rooting for him to win, DreamWorks was dumping money into his next record. The lead single from said record, XO’s Waltz #2 (XO), even sounds like an honest hit. The kind that only could have been considered as such right at the end of the 1990s when acts like Fiona Apple could captivate MTV and radio alike without compromising their florid sound.
But ultimately, even with its accessible melody and catchy hook (“I’m never gonna know you now…”), Waltz #2 (XO) is an Elliott Smith song, which means it would rather sit alone in the corner of the bar than command the room from the stage. As such we’re left with a misanthrop’s anthem, one that tells a story so subtly you don’t even catch it at first, a tale of insults lobbed subliminally through karaoke songs. “XO Mom,” goes the bridge, “It’s okay, it’s alright, nothing’s wrong.” That wasn’t true but Elliott really does sell it on record like he’s trying to convince everyone and himself that it is. Radio wasn’t ready for that sentiment – 1999 alt-rock radio needed either fashionably sarcastic or luddingly obvious – but all of us who need these songs like oxygen to this day, were.
3. Christian Brothers (Heatmiser)
Elliott hated people, his sensitive and quiet folk accouterments barely masking a fierce loathing for humanity. He wished the worst on his father (Roman Candle), greedy record execs (Angeles) and concerned friends (Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands), but rarely did the music rise so obviously to the venom, instead seething along quietly behind Smith. The Heatmiser band version of Christian Brothers, however, roars. Splitting the difference between R.E.M. collegiate jangle and Nirvana grunge fire, its huge distorted guitar sound makes Elliott’s double tracked falsetto into something like the monster at the end of your bed rearing up out of the shadows. Despite remaining in the vault until 2016, this one proves that, despite his claims to the contrary, Eliott didn’t need to sing loudly to be heard over heavy guitars, his hatred was plenty loud enough.
4. King's Crossing
Most of Elliott Smith’s songs are deeply comforting no matter the subject material but King’s Crossing, from the posthumous From A Basement on the Hill, is scary, terrifying even. It sounds like what it’s like to be down-and-out for so long in Los Angeles that the weather’s consistency and dry heat start to feel like the end of the world, just one long acre of pavement to stagger around forever. During the rare performances of this song after Smith would sing the line “Give me one good reason not to do it” his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba would cry out “Because we love you!” That bit made it into the song proper but it doesn’t prevent the next lyric from arriving: “So do it.”
5. The Biggest Lie
I used to get drunk just so I could listen to Elliott Smith while drunk. That’s a concerning sentence to see typed out but I feel secure that anyone who knows, knows. Elliot Smith songs are a good friend waiting for you at the bottom of a deep well, the shadow companion to your dark night of the soul, you’re going through it. And if you were looking forward to hanging out with The Biggest Lie after work you were deep, deep down there. “You spent everything you had, wanted everything to stop that bad” is the sharpest dart hurled at an addict’s heart, but Eliott doesn’t inject it with an ounce of judgment, instead he just knows. He knows what you’re going through and, honestly, when you’re going through it too that can be a much deeper comfort than someone telling you things will get better.
Holiday Kirk is a music journalist that lives and works in Los Angeles.
It feels impossible to pick the five best Elliott Smith songs. His catalog is exceptionally balanced in its across-the-board upper-echelon consistency. In truth, my top five would probably change weekly. Since I first met his music in 1996-7, I’ve almost certainly spent more time with it than with anyone else’s. (I actually wouldn’t be surprised to find out the margin was two, three-to-one over whoever’s next.)
I pretty immediately experienced his work as reorganizational. It introduced a new and unreachable capital-S “Song” ideal that still holds - actually, it only grows deeper roots the more songs I hear out in the world. It’s my perma-metric of measurement, as a songwriter and fan, an evolving, singular music school, a forever friend I’ve invited into a wide range of inner sanctum spaces - weddings and funerals, fresh starts and dead ends, the lullaby circuit at my daughter’s bedside.
I’ve employed a sort of cheat code here to make the task more digestible and limited myself to one song from each of his studio albums, plus an alternate.
This is today’s snapshot of that, which slightly warps the assignment, but I trust not beyond recognition.
I said, “That’s impossible,” to myself multiple times in the selection process.
And I was cheating!
He was the best.
(For the record: my favorite b-side would be either I Figured You Out or Division Day, which would be the best songs on most anyone else’s proper albums, and my favorite Heatmiser song would be Plainclothes Man or See You Later.)
(PS - I cobbled this foreword together in soft spaces following my kid around on her last week of summer break. That continued task prevents me from further rambling pontification about each individual song selection. You can thank her for sparing you.)
Condor Ave / No Name #1
The Biggest Lie / Clementine
Ballad Of Big Nothing / Between The Bars
Waltz #2 (XO) / I Didn’t Understand
Happiness / Better Be Quiet Now
From A Basement On The Hill
Kings Crossing / Memory Lane
Kevin Devine lives in Brooklyn and writes and performs songs, sometimes by himself, sometimes with The Goddamn Band, sometimes as a member of Bad Books, and sometimes in other contexts.
I always struggle with these top 5 or top however many things because it changes! I’ve got 735 songs on my computer including live stuff! But okay, for this moment, Sunday Sept 3rd at 8:11pm these are my top 5 Elliott Smith songs.
5. Mr. Goodmorning (Live at Irving Plaza 5/17/00)
I think this is my favorite version of this one (that I’ve found at least). I love the way this song comes out of the bridge. It’s got such a good build and then it all drops into that main chord progression that is also a riff and the vocal melody?! Glorious.
4. How to Take a Fall
Love this one cause it feels so heavy while not being really all that distorted. Just gives you that heavy feeling because of the open c tuning. I love the tinkling piano in the background. I love the melody. I love it all.
3. Bled White
I really like the call and response vibe of the verses on this one. And the overall sound of it. Little circle-y keys sound and fun, upbeat drums. The way the guitar line catches the vocals in the bridge. Also I find this one kinda uplifting with the ending of “I may not seem quite right, but I’m not fucked not quite.” Like yeah! I’m not fucked! Not quite!
2. A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free
This one sets such a mood from the very opening riff, and then coming in with the “I’m floating in a black balloon…” opening. I mean. Come on.
1. The Biggest Lie
This is number one for me a majority of the time. It had a very significant impact on my life back in college. I’ve got a tattoo of part of it. It’s a perfect song.
Elise Okusami plays in the band Oceanator.
Ballad of Big Nothing
From the very opening guitar slide this song was instantly a favorite of mine. The lyrical refrain in the second verse "all spit and spite/you're up all night and down everyday" is lyrically and melodically perfect. I’ve always taken the meaning of this song as the “fuck it” side of having an existential moment: "Do what you want to, whenever you want to." But in the end the emptiness is still the winning emotion. “It doesn’t mean a thing…big nothing.”
The lyric “This is not my life. It's just a fond farewell to a friend" is such a simple and powerful way to describe the “one last time" mentality that many of us who suffer with addiction issues will understand. I’ve always loved how this song bears such heavy subject matter, yet still manages to have a bright upbeat musical composition. It’s fun to sing along to even if it hits very close to home.
Everything Means Nothing to Me
This song is a perfect encapsulation of the feeling expressed in the song title. Once he gets into singing the phrase over and over with the full band coming in, it's a wash of sound that very accurately portrays the sensation of an overwhelming depression.
I love this song so much. I’m just going to quote some of my favorite lyrics:
“I can't prepare for death anymore than I already have...”
“The method acting that pays my bills keeps a fat man feeding in Beverly Hills.”
“I took my own insides out.”
“I've seen the movie, I know what happens”
“Give me one good reason not to do it.”
Pretty (Ugly Before)
Before I got sober I used to only feel pretty when I was using pills and booze, then feel so horribly self conscious when I would sober up after a binge. The only cure for that dysmorphia was to pick up again. “There is no nighttime, it’s only a passing phase.”
Field Medic is a freak folk singer songwriter.
5. Division Day
4. Between the Bars
3. Miss Misery
2. The Biggest Lie
1. Say Yes
When someone asks you to pick your top five Elliott Smith songs, the first thing you do is write down the titles of all the songs that immediately rushed to the front of your mind — the instant-reaction, right-off-the-top-of-your-head stuff. And once that list hits Page 2, you realize you fucked up, and it's time to edit.
Take out the covers, because he didn't write them, so no Thirteen, which introduced me to Big Star, or Care of Cell 44, which introduced me to the Zombies, or Because, which didn't introduce me to the Beatles, but which, a quarter-century later, might be the most (only?) recommendable aspect of American Beauty. Take out I Figured You Out, because yeah, he wrote it, but he wrote it for Mary Lou Lord, and when you give someone a present, it doesn't really belong to you anymore.
Take out the Heatmiser stuff, because while he gets solo writing credit on See You Later and Half Right, and while they'd both be the best things in most other songwriters' whole discographies, they're still full-band pieces. And let's not kid ourselves: You haven't listened to those records nearly as much as his solo stuff, so don't try to be too clever by half just to look cool for Luke and his writer/musician friends.
(Also, just FYI, real quick, I used to live like five minutes away from Great Scott and I saw Smoking Popes at Harpers Ferry and this one time I bought a pack of USA Golds at the Silhouette, NBD.)
And then, after spending way too long arguing with yourself about stuff like the morality of including songs off From a Basement on the Hill (since he never got to finish it) and whether your wife will get mad at you if you don't put on Happiness (I mean, you did dance to it at your wedding), you remember you have a deadline. And besides: If you're being honest, there's a pretty easy answer. Because there are only a few of them that you regularly sing to your kids.
What started as a matter of practicality — the songs that you know all the words to are the easiest ones to remember when you're trying to rock an infant back to sleep — continued when the singing moved from the middle of the night to regular ol' bedtime. Because there's no end to the amount of stuff you have to, should, or are supposed to teach your kids, and sometimes you have to throw some elbows to clear out space to show them what you think is beautiful.
Like a haunted house of a man who only needed an acoustic guitar and a couple of minutes to make you feel things nobody else could. Like the ineffable grace and nobility that can allow someone to transform our human nightmares — addiction, depression, abuse, all the people we've been before, all those unrightable wrongs — into the kind of celestial melodies that'll live a hell of a lot longer than his 34 years.
Like that white suit under those spotlights, hand in hand with Celine goddamn Dion, sheepishly taking a bow. Like the moment when the cloud cover of self-loathing clears up just enough to see that she's still around; to realize that, instead of falling down, you're standing up; to feel the hope that, even if you still don't fully believe in yourself, maybe she actually does. That maybe, this time, the answer's yes.
It's me Luke here. How's it going? A couple of years ago I interviewed JJ Gonson, a long time friend and photographer of Elliott's, on the occasion of Kill Rock Stars releasing a book of her photos for the 25th anniversary of the self-titled record. Since this piece isn't long enough already I thought I'd include some of it. Read the whole thing here.
LO: Obviously the music is great, but I don’t really “revere” too many musicians in too precious a way, even the ones I love. For some reason Elliott means a lot to me in a way that feels different. Why do you think people still care so much?
JG: He was just unusually brilliant and he had the ability to put feelings into words. And in addition to that he had this voice. He would sing very quietly, and mic himself singing very close to the mic, so you really felt like he was talking into your ear. He was practically whispering sometimes, and there’s no way you could hear that unless you were very close to someone, so it has that feeling like it’s very personal, and you have to listen very carefully. And then there’s this guitar playing thing. I can’t think of many people who could do what he did playing rhythm and lead at the same time. I don’t know, I watched it a lot and it was quite something. He could write, sing, and play. There was so much intelligence all over the place.
One of my favorite lines is from “Clementine.” “The street's wet you can tell by the sound of the cars.” It’s a nothing statement. I just did it yesterday. I was sitting on a porch and I could hear it. It’s this simple but elegant statement. “They're waking you up to close the bar…” Then he does this thing, when I talk about the writing being brilliant, he takes this classic song and turns it into his own. “Oh my darling clementine…” He captures what’s going on around him, and then he goes into like “Maybe the whole thing's wrong. What if she thinks so but just didn't say so?” These are all things that we feel … What if the whole thing is wrong?! Capturing that, putting it into such simple words, and then sharing it in this whisper where it’s almost in your head. You’re locked into it, right?
Yesterday for the first time in my life I thought: I’m an Elliott Smith fan. By definition. I think about him. I talk about him. His lyrics play through my mind. I think he’s one of the greatest songwriters, certainly in my experience and his beautiful lyrics touch us because of his intimate style.
What do you remember from the day of the album cover photo?
I was in Prague. I was doing this walkabout. I was twenty two. I started in Lisbon and ended up in London. I went all through Spain and into Morocco up through Italy. I had had all these wild adventures along the way and gotten used to sleeping in hostels. I was wandering around Prague a lot and came by this museum of contemporary art. There was this installation outside of people hanging, dangling from wires like they were falling. Not so much jumping but kind of falling in a soft way, like floating. And I took a picture and there you go. Ta dah!
Later on he was looking through your photos and just picked that one?
Yeah. There were contact sheets of the fifty rolls of film or whatever it was I shot on that trip and of those he chose three images, all of which appeared on covers. When I got back I went into the darkroom and printed some of the greatest hits, from my mind, from that experience, and I gave them to my parents. All three are on the wall at my parents house doing this kind of cool thing, I didn’t fix them long enough, so they're doing that thing where they turn silver. We, Heatmiser, on tour we’d stay wherever we could, and we did stay with my parents more than once, so it’s possible he first saw that picture on the wall there.
One of those pictures went on a Heatmiser cover for “Sleeping Pill.” That’s a photo I absolutely adore. It’s a picture of a kid sitting on a beer keg, playing a handheld cheap little casio piano. Behind him there’s another kid leaning on the bar looking out the window and the sun is washing on his face. It’s two kids in a bar. That was taken in Portugal. So Elliott was looking through this book of contact sheets asking me to print them.
The other one, that’s a nothing photo, but has a good story to me. It’s on the back cover of the self-titled album. It’s the ferris wheel in Vienna from the film The Third Man, the 1949 film.
Based on the Graham Greene book.
That’s right. And it stars a very young kind of sexy Orson Welles. He has this wrestling match where they try to push each other off the wheel in Vienna, and that’s the wheel. I think we were both more enamored of the fact it was from this movie we really liked. But it’s also a good background photo.
Find more of JJ Gonson's work here.